A lot of people train hard rather than smart. Admittedly you must train hard to get any real benefits, but Gyms everywhere have people training hard that could make their training far more effective by working smarter, rather than just harder. To maximise training benefits, a routine needs to exploit every possible opportunity to get the body to adapt to it and grow. The tempo of reps is something that can completely change a workout and its results, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of lifting as heavy as possible rather than focusing on how you lift.

The Importance of Tempo in Muscle Gain

Tempo can completely change a workout and the results you gain.  It can also ensure a maximal tension is put through the muscle for the duration of the contraction: minimising any momentum or cheating.  As tempo changes can encourage a smoother range of motion, they are also far less likely to cause an injury.  You will feel the rep far deeper, a more maximal contraction that in turn will give you better results.

What is Tempo in Weightlifting?

Weightlifting tempo is the amount of seconds it takes you to complete one complete repetition.  In this sense, a repetition being from a start position through its range then back to its start position.  Tempo is normally expressed in three or four numbers, each of these numbers corresponding to a different part of the range of motion.  If we take a bicep curl as an example and break it up into four separate parts:

  1. Negative portion – Elbow flexed with the weight up; the weight is then lowered eccentrically to the bottom of the range
  2. Bottom of range – The arm reaches full extension
  3. Positive portion – The arm is curled back up in an concentric contraction
  4. Starting position – The arm has returned to its starting position and is held in an isometric contraction

These four stages form the numbers that tempo is broken up into.  A tempo of 3/1/2/1 would mean 3 seconds down, 1 second pause, 2 second return and a 1 second pause before repeating the rep.  Whereas a 4/0/3/0 would mean 4 seconds down, no pause, 3 second up, no pause then repeat.  Ideally reps should be about 7 seconds long; this has been proven to be the optimum timing for muscle growth.  Research has shown that for muscular development, the muscle needs to be under tension for between 30-70 seconds per set.  I appreciate this is a broad amount of time, but everyone is different so it is worth playing with to see what works best for your body.

Enhancing Intensity

The most important part of a rep is when the fibres are lengthening under tension (i.e. eccentrically on the downwards phase).  This is when the most amount of micro trauma takes place and therefore where the emphasis of reps should be placed.  Most people tend to concentrate on the reps rather than any pausing at the top or bottom.  Depending on the exercise, you can enhance the intensity of your exercise through adding these pauses in.  The contraction at the bottom or the top of the range will make the muscle work even harder.  It is important to remember that different exercises will have different areas that this will apply to though.  If we were to take the bicep curl again as our example (if it were a free standing exercise) there would be no tension in phase 2 but there would be lots in phase 4.  Squats would be the reverse of this and so one tempo couldn’t necessarily be used for the entire workout.

What Tempo is Right For Me?

If you haven’t ever thought about modifying your tempo, cut the weights back and start with a 4/0/3/0.  The biggest common mistake with most lifters is getting through reps far too quickly.  Not only are you more likely to injure yourself, you will also lose form.  As you lose form, the emphasis is taken off the working muscles and they lose tension as you cheat.  For the best results the muscles need to remain under tension for the whole set, tempo training places more stress on the working muscles and forces you to keep form, thereby ensuring better results.

There is plenty of research into training tempos, but generally a good starting point would be this:

Negative Portion (eccentric): 2 – 6 seconds

Bottom of Range: 0 – 2 seconds

Positive Portion (concentric): 1 – 3 seconds

Starting Position: 0 – 2 seconds

Again, the reason to the broad times is due to different people responding in different ways.  What works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work in the same way for the next person.  Have a look at what you are doing now and try applying the principles behind tempo based lifting.  Tweak the suggested timings until you have found one that works best for you.

Its not really about reps, it’s about the amount of time the muscle is under tension, that’s what really brings results.  If you slow the rep down you will feel the muscle working in a far more intense way.  It’s that intensity that will drive your results.

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